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Toilets in China: On cleanliness and filth

Note added in December 2019: I wrote the following article years ago in Hancheng, China, and I see now how terribly judgemental I was about toilets in China. I’ve added some tips and comments to update it a bit.

My message now is: be aware of how you communicate and behave around the issue of Chinese toilets. We are judging them from the point of view of our own cultures.

The entrance to the Lama Temple is on the left of the picture, an arched doorway in a bright red wall. The top edge of the wall under the roof line is painted elaborately in many colors with blue predominating. In the foreground is a large statue of a lion, only partially showing in the picture. Its paw with sharp claws is resting on some sort of decorated ball.
Lama Temple in Beijing

I have deleted comments and turned off commenting because of the number of generally racist, anti-Chinese and anti-Asian comments people were leaving. If you want to send me a comment, use the comment form on the “About Rachel” page – see the menu above – but it will not be published.

While it’s okay to feel negative about toilets and other customs in China, be careful that this does not become a condemnation of China as a whole, its people or its culture. It’s a fascinating and wonderful place and I’d go back in a flash if I could!

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I’m puzzled by Chinese attitudes toward cleanliness. The cities we’ve seen so far: Beijing, Chengde, Datong, Pingyao and where we are now, Hancheng, are dirty, loud, crowded places. People spit loudly and copiously on the street. There’s litter. Everyone smokes, everywhere. Look at the short film I’ve added here and you’ll see what I mean: it’s the view from our 11th floor hotel room here in Hancheng. If you’re wondering if it’s overcast or if that’s pollution, I don’t know; I can’t tell.

Toilets in China

The worst part for us is the Chinese toilets: they are smelly and filthy and disgusting. On the one hand, they’re squat toilets, which is good as far as I’m concerned, because that allows me to avoid touching them, but I don’t understand why people accept that level of filth, especially the smell.

There’s only rarely any toilet paper, and, apparently because the plumbing can’t take it, the toilet paper (that people bring themselves) doesn’t get flushed but gets put in a wastepaper basket next to the toilet—hence the smell. There’s more detail I could give, but I think you get the idea.

Note added in December 2019: I’ve learned since my trip in China that in many cultures people prefer to clean themselves with water and then only use toilet paper, if at all, to dry themselves. Since the plumbing and/or sewer systems can’t handle all that paper, they put it in a trash container instead, and it’s not smelly because it’s only been used to dry clean skin. This is NOT what I witnessed in China. In most places there was no water in the stall to clean myself with, and frankly, the whole facility smelled terrible.

Here are some tips for using a squat toilet in China or elsewhere, in case this is something you’re not used to:

  • Bring toilet paper. Hand your bag or whatever you’re carrying to a friend, or hang it on a hook inside the stall, if there is one.
  • There are usually spots on either side of the hole meant for your feet.
  • Turn around and face the door before you squat.
  • If you’re wearing pants or shorts, pull them all the way down past your knees. If you’re wearing a skirt or dress, do the same with your tights/pantyhose and underwear and lift up your skirt. Don’t forget to lift the back of your skirt as well.
  • As you pull your pants down and squat, keep your hands on your back pockets so nothing falls out. Better yet, empty your back pockets before you start.
  • Squat as far down as possible. This will help hold your scrunched-up pants out of the way and make it unlikely for anything to hit them.
  • Once you’re done, stay squatting until you wipe yourself. If there is a hand shower in the stall, now is the time to use it, then use the toilet paper to dry yourself.
  • Dispose of the toilet paper, either by throwing it in the hole or in a trash bin, depending what the norm is where you are.
  • Only then, stand up again and pull up your pants, again keeping your hands on your back pockets as you pull up.

Clearly, too, the vast majority of people here live in relative squalor: mostly run-down huge apartment blocks. There are many public toilets along the streets, and they stink (I haven’t been in them, but they stink just walking by.). I suspect that many people don’t have toilets of their own, perhaps because apartments and more traditional houses have been subdivided so much, so these public toilets get a lot of use.

Inside the archway, several bicycles are parked against the side walls. The floor is paved with bricks, wet in places. Beyond the archway is a space that is open to the sky. A row of brick shacks face the center alleyway. Their bricks are rough and their roofs, the bits that are visible, look like they're made of scraps of metal and plastic. Laundry hangs on lines between them.
Many traditional courtyard buildings (pictured is in Pingyao) have an open entrance to the street. You can look in and see how the old courtyards are full of small houses now.

If you’re thinking of a trip to China, use this Booking.com link to book hotels.

Night soil

In the smaller towns too, even without massive apartment buildings, people seem to live in very poor conditions. Yesterday, in Pingyao (which is a popular tourist destination because the original walled city of traditional courtyard houses is completely intact), we were walking a side street, away from the main tourist area, and saw a ‘night soil‘ man. They used to have these in European and American cities as well, until sewer systems and indoor plumbing were improved.

a view from above of a street lined with simple brown brick building, with slightly curving roofs in the Chinese traditional style. More such houses can be seen in the background. ON the street that stretches into the distance, umbrellas cover street stalls on both sides and people walk down the middle between them.
Pingyao, looking into the old part of the city from up on the old city wall

This night-soil man had a donkey-pulled cart with a big tank mounted on it, and he was pouring a bucket of ‘night soil’ into the tank. That means there are people living in these traditional courtyard houses who still don’t have plumbing for toilets.

Seen from above: Two wagons are parked, with barrels on them of various sizes, all looking brown and filthy. Beside them is a cluster of more barrels, again in a range of sizes, some open, some closed. the ground is paved in brick, but damaged in places.
a ‘night soil’ depot seen (and smelled) from the city wall of Pingyao

Here are some more tips for using toilets in China:

  • We found that toilets got somewhat better when they were behind a pay wall. In other words, if you are going to pay admission to something, wait until after you do so. The toilet inside the attraction or museum or historical site or whatever is likely to get a bit less use, so it’ll be somewhat less smelly. Some sites have multiple pay walls, i.e. you pay admission to the site and have to pay more to enter something more specific further in. The toilet behind two paywalls will be somewhat better.
  • Our foster daughter had brought some of those tiny perfume samplers with her. We used them before entering the toilets, dabbing a bit under our noses before going in. It helped a bit.
  • When we had a centrally-located hotel, we planned our day around circling back after a few hours to use the hotel toilet.

Hotels and trains: cleanliness and Chinese toilets

At the same time, some places can be exceedingly clean too. The hotels we’ve stayed in are spotless, and labour must be cheap because there are people busy dusting furniture, cleaning floors and so on all day.

The toilets in our hotel rooms (mostly officially three-star, but often four-star quality) are Western-style sit toilets and very clean: usually better than in Europe.

The lobby is several stories tall with a big empty space in the middle with a shiny white floor. On the right are the check-in desks. On the left, a few people sit on a bench. Behind them is a cluster of small trees and behind them, a glass elevater is stopped on the floor above. In the back of the shot a balcony is visible one floor up.
our shiny clean hotel lobby in Luoyang

Shops and restaurants are often bare-bones, but always clean. The train compartments and the bedding on the sleepers are absolutely threadbare, but clean, and the windows of the train are cleaner than the average in Holland. (Yet the train toilets are just as bad as the public ones, even on bullet trains.)

You might also enjoy these ruminations on China:

The entry is four doors wide, all painted red. A small roof juts out above it, curved in the traditional Chinese way. A red paper lamp hangs on both corners of the little roof. On each side of the entrance are six-sided windows: two on the left and one on the right.
the entrance to our hotel in Beijing

Personal grooming

Several times I’ve seen people pull out tissues and carefully clean around the sides of their shoes. In the waiting room at the train station, where I saw people spit and litter even inside, I watched a woman very carefully peruse the available seats critically before deciding which to sit in. People dust off their scooters before sitting down.

People here are always neatly dressed, even if they are poor. Their clothes are clean and their hair is clean. How they manage that, I don’t know. Especially when you consider those courtyard houses that probably don’t have running water, it’s an achievement!

So where is the boundary? When is cleanliness important and when is filth acceptable?

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Text: Toilets in China: On cleanliness and filth
Image: a view from above of a street lined with simple brown brick buildings. Umbrellas cover street stalls on both sides of the street and people walk down the middle between them.


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about Rachel

Hi, I’m Rachel!

Rachel’s Ruminations is a travel blog focused on independent travel with an emphasis on cultural and historical sites/sights. I also occasionally write about life as an expatriate. I hope you enjoy what I post here; feel free to leave comments!  Read more…
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Had ooit een huisgenoot (Chinese ouders) die terugging naar haar geboortegrond. Ze vond het vreselijk. Jouw bovenstaande verhaal was precies wat zij ervoer…
Hoop dat de bezienswaardigheden mooier zijn.

Yes, I almost want to invest in Proctor and Gamble or whoever ends up selling the most cleaning agents to the Chinese—many of them are in sore need of learning cleaning habits. (It is all in how you are raised. So someone will make a fortune running home economics classes in the schools, or for the adults. I myself was literally on my hands and knees yesterday for an hour in my tiny bathroom with an old brush, rag, Dow foam bathroom cleaner, then toothpaste and hydrogen peroxide to whiten my white bathroom floor—when I was a child in the 1960s I learned all about getting the house “spic and span” clean–especially the kitchens and bathrooms. Bleach, white vinegar, baking soda, and now denatured alcohol and hydrogen peroxide are my best cleaning friends!)

Regarding your comment about the body odor: I can say that until I started exercising regularly and actually working to a sweat, I don’t recall ever perspiring much. So for some of those people you encountered, they may have been taught about cleanliness and to boot they probably didn’t sweat much (sweat makes it easier for dirt to stick to you which clogs the pores). Maybe the people know to bathe themselves and wash their clothes well too. It’s an educational/public health issue that, even if already addressed, could take time for all citizens to start embracing. I heard that new habits take 21 straight days to develop–if the Chinese just mandated new cleaning routines and gave people their first supplies to last 3 months, how many Chinese would start a new cleaning habit?

Even in Belgian cities you will see black buckets with lids left out for the “night soil man”

The body odor issue is actually genetic. East Asians have a gene that changes the sweat and bacteria they produce while perspiring… Leaving no odor.

The answer is pretty straightforward if you think about it historically. China prior to the (pre 1950s) cultural revolution was a society with better education, sanitary habits, and overall cleanliness. World war II and the subsequent cultural revolution practically wiped out all intellectuals, aristocrats, and educated people in most cities, leaving in its wake a relatively uneducated and uncultured mass that became the status quo. This is the generation that you see living in the cities. Where as, if you go to chinese societies untouched by the cultural revolution like Taiwan, HK, or Singapore, you get a completely different picture. The hotels and clean facilities you are seeing is the result of the recent industrial revolution and transition to a modern society. As China’s society continues to modernize and improve with education, the squalor will disappear within the next decade.

Taiwan was a Japanese colony for almost half a century and HK was a British colony for 99 years. The foreign influence on these two places do not allow a comparison for how China could have developed without the cultural revolution. Macao was a Portugese colony for many years and it was pretty filthy when I visited 20 years ago.

Re chinese becoming less filthy: wishful thinking at best. All the blame on communism and it’s antecedents are a non-issue, the people of china have been living in a germ-filled country since its Inception. Read travelogues from three to five-hundred years ago and they describe the same things the author did. Cleanliness as we know it has never been a goal of the chinese.

This reminds me how gross it was when I lived there for 3 months. I was in Beijing for around 8 weeks and Shanghai for 6, and various other places in between. I remember the restrooms at the Beijing aquarium- you could smell the pee about 30 feet away from it. In another instance, I had the usual “Chinarrhea” bout and luckily for me I was near a Western run hotel in Chaoyang district– so I made a b-line for the potty inside the hotel. Where i spent the next 3 hours running in and out until it felt like I had 3 enemas. A woman came out of a closet each time to clean up the potty after (what an awful job) and hand me a warm rag for my hands. Although every other bathroom in Asia was filthy. Western-style pottys are frequently covered in urine since most people from Asia just stand on the toilet seats. Even in a fancy mall- pee EVERYWHERE. People letting their babies poop publically in trashcans, you name it. Spitting old ladies, spitting men.. Then of course the long fingernail for picking your own nose in public. Asking a young woman who was making bread if the mall is open, while she was picking her nose and putting it INTO the bread. Absolutely horrifying. I feel like the Chinese have no sense of what a germ is, or how to not spread them. I’m sure some educated people do- but in general there isn’t much idea of cleanliness. Even some of the people I know from China and Taiwan who live here- public nose picking is normal, leaving a chicken in your car for 8 hours then eating it, etc. NOPE.

This is why I never wanted to visit China (any Asian countries for the record). I’m easily grossed out, I’m very sensitive to smells as well as disgusting sights and it’s just not worth it to travel that far and then panicking about all the icky stuff. I think these habits along with the cramped living conditions is what made Covid spread so easily. There are a lot of Chinese stores where I live (a small European country) and I don’t really shop at them, but I went to one with someone else once and I saw the man running the store just walk around aimlessly while picking his nose and then flicking the findings everywhere. Eww! Also, a distant relative of mine had Chinese tenants and she found such a mess when she went to collect rent that she started cleaning and kicked them out on the spot.